By Benjamin McKay
Coming of age stories, especially those that take us on a physical journey, can be problematic films to craft well – the narratives are often loaded with detail, and when resolutions are sought there is a tendency to mire them under the weight of sentimentality.
Goodbye Boys (Malaysia, 2006; English with Malay and Chinese dialects; Red Films), a deceptively simple tale of eight young males on a scouting adventure, fortunately avoids such sentimentality: it allows the characters to unfold within the narrative – as the narrative itself is shaped by the quirky charms of the landscapes it journeys through.
A student recently asked me how a film narrative differs from the narratives we find in novels and plays. I suggested that such a narrative ought to be driven, in a large part, by a command of the visual in a happy marriage of form and content: film is, after all, a visual medium, not a literary one. Writer-director Bernard Chauly, in his second feature film (after last year’s successful Gol & Gincu) has availed himself nicely of the capacity of cinematographers Albert Hue and Haris Hue Abdullah to deftly capture both the evocative landscape of Perak’s Kinta Valley and a fresh and attractive young cast.
Very few of the 150 scenes – shot at 66 locations in and around Ipoh and the Kinta Valley – aren’t well composed or aesthetically consistent. The indie edge of digital filmmaking looks good packaged up nicely in this mainstream format. Even the gloom of night, a little too dark at times, still manages to reveal splashes of graded light. These tropic nights envelope the action: the camera work here clearly relishes the mood it harnesses.
The landscape in Goodbye Boys is so much more than merely a setting. In this film it often acts as grounds for metaphorical revelation – a space for the articulation and development of character and for the shaping of ideas.
Set in 1990, this otherwise simple teen movie – about a rites-of-passage journey undertaken by a group of Malaysian scouts as they leave the town of Ipoh for a 100km hike over five days – is an intelligent and sensitive contribution to the genre. The scarred and now denuded tin mining landscape becomes, here, a site for personal and emotional growth and catharsis.
Our eight young male protagonists venture out of their lives in Ipoh, undertaking a five-day hike in order to fulfil a basic requirement for King Scout status, visiting places like Kampar, Tanjung Tualang and Batu Gajah along the way. The limits of their friendships are tested as they endure harsh weather and gruelling terrain – as well as face a range of emotional and personal conflicts that arise from within the group. Some conflicts – those they assumed they had left at home – also have an impact upon the way the boys cope with the stress and strain of the journey they are on.
The charting of these developments is paced to match the pace of the journey itself. Quiet but ordered exposition builds to a central scene of plot and character synthesis at one of Perak’s last remaining tin mining dredges – a powerful scene of gripping suspense, shot in a fascinating locale.
The manner in which our protagonists face up to this incident leads to an emotional, personal and thematic resolution at the film’s end, when the boys, now young men, face up to what they have learned from their experiences. The film concludes in a dance at a convent – and the mood and style of the early 1990s is nicely evoked.
Editor Grace Tan has skilfully paced the composition of scenes so as not to alter the natural manner in which the narrative builds and unfolds. Interesting temporal shifts mark the journey: both in relation to the passage of time – and its impact upon the unfolding journey, landscape and changing characterisations of our eight main characters.
Pimples and Sweat
If Bernard Chauly explored the capacity to work with an ensemble of young people in Gol & Gincu, then he has taken that project a step or two further in Goodbye Boys. If his previous feature was a largely all-girl teen romance, then his latest film is a decidedly testosterone-laden look at the awkward and hormonally-driven transition state that is male adolescence. I can barely recall another film that so graphically deals with pimples and sweat!
The eight male characters that are the chief focus of this film might be seen as archetypes, but perhaps no more so than exists in the pigeon-holed reality of adolescent identities, anyway. What makes this film particularly interesting is that the characters are allowed to blossom into multi-dimensional, and sometimes complex, young men: the honest and idealistic Ivan also proves to be proud and rigid; the quiet troupe leader Glenn conceals hidden pain and secret ambitions. Aris, a seemingly feckless sidekick to the dominant, rebellious and sexually charged Jin, redeems himself by the film’s end, showing that he understands the true nature of friendship. Protagonists have clay feet and antagonists reveal a gentler side.
As in other films of this genre, the characters drive the narrative through their own development – a development that arises out of the actual journey itself. The overall premise of this film is simple, but Chauly has made a highly personal film (Goodbye Boys is set in 1990 at the same school the director attended: St Michael’s Institution) that is not afraid to explore the complex nuances found in young male relationships. The director has again decided to revel in the complex ethnic diversity of Malaysia – rather than ignore it, as some mainstream filmmakers do – and he has clearly enjoyed playing with the linguistic flexibility of his subjects. Chauly has made another recognisably Malaysian film – but one that will also resonate across national borders, for audiences both young and old.
While Goodbye Boys is an ensemble piece, a couple of performances stand out. As Ivan, Razif Hashim shows great screen promise. An increasingly complex and driven character as the movie progress, Ivan is not without some annoying flaws, and the young actor has intelligently brought this to life in a screen debut that showcases his talent and presence.
In playing Glenn, the troupe leader, a young actor called Nas-T – what a beguiling name – proves that you can do quite a lot on screen, even when you do not have too much to say. Tommy Kuan, as the rotund Aaron, brings depth and sensitivity to a role that might have appeared cliched in other hands.
There are a few minor flaws in Goodbye Boys. I had mixed feelings about the film’s quieter moments. Silence may well be a sound in itself, but on screen it becomes jarring if employed for no apparent purpose. Having said that, the music, especially Nitrus’s excellent theme song, Hujung Dunia, manages to keep the mood of youthful exuberance alive – the tune definitely does more than just function as an endnote accompaniment to the credits.
Reviews rarely mention producers, but I think it might be prudent to acknowledge them here. I do not mean to suggest, in singling them out, that a recognisable house style has emerged from Red Films – it hasn’t – but there is a professional edge to the films (and TV programs) that have been released by the company. Producers Lina Tan, Lee Mee Fung and Alan Tan should be acknowledged for their continued support in producing intelligent, entertaining, quality films for young people in this country. That they allow the indie spirit to transform what are in effect mainstream films aimed at a young audience makes their feature productions rather unique in the local context.
Goodbye Boys may be modest – and for the writer-director, quite personal and semi-autobiographical – but aside from its apparent simplicity, the film should still have wide appeal. 2006 is seeing a lot of exciting new work emerge from the local filmmaking community, and Bernard Chauly’s film holds its own with considerable aplomb: a well-executed piece of entertainment that treats both its subject and its young audience with intelligence and respect.
Due to the limited number of digital projectors in Malaysian cinemas, a general release for this film would not have been possible until well into 2007. In order to allow Malaysian audiences to see the film prior to its international premiere at the upcoming Tokyo International Film Festival, Red Films, with the support of the film’s sponsors, have resorted to a rather novel means of exhibition.
Goodbye Boys premieres locally via limited screenings in Kuala Lumpur on Fri 22 & Sat 23, Sep 2006; this will be followed immediately afterwards by a nationwide VCD-DVD release on Mon 25, Sep 2006. In addition to its international premiere in Tokyo, the film will be also screened in Singapore’s The Picturehouse, Cathay in late September.
First Published: 21.09.2006 on Kakiseni